The weekend publication of an interview in The Sunday Times newspaper with representatives of the Army Council of the New Irish Republican Army (NIRA) has raised a number of interesting points. Though the discussion between the investigative journalist John Mooney and the insurgent leaders has been edited down and paraphrased from his handwritten notes, it does provide some insight into the general political and military thinking of the organisation. This seems to focus primarily on the old revolutionary theory of propagande par le fait or the “propaganda of the deed”. That is, the selective use of violent or non-violent methods in symbolic actions designed to accrue publicity and support for a specific cause. This strategy dates back to the revolutionary and anarchist traditions of 19th century Europe and was given some form of quasi-official imprimatur at the International Anarchist Congress of London in 1881.
The most celebrated example from Irish history is probably the Phoenix Park Assassinations by the Irish National Invincibles, a breakaway grouping of the clandestine Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), which killed two senior British colonial administrators in Ireland in 1881, outraging the government and press in the United Kingdom. The contemporary Fenian Dynamite Campaign (or Dynamite War) of the early and mid-1880s followed a similar strategy. It involved a series of bomb attacks against high-profile targets in the UK organised and directed by two factions of the Fenian movement in the United States of America, specifically a dissenting element of the main Clan na Gael organisation and a smaller rival known as the United Irishmen of America, led by the legendary revolutionary Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.
Some suggest that the publicity-garnering strikes in the British capital and other cities helped raise the profile of the Irish struggle at a time of low morale and setbacks, marked by the failure of the 1867 Rising and the stalled Fenian Invasions of Canada between 1866 and 1871 (these were large-scale raids from the US by the Irish Republican Army into what was to become Canada; the IRA being the overt military wing of the secret Fenian Brotherhood of America or FBA). Many more argue that both groups did damage to the Irish nationalist cause in the 1800s, setting it back instead of reviving it, splitting the global Fenian tradition and souring relations with the IRB which opposed the European operations of its American and Irish-American comrades.
Whatever the debate over the tactics of armed struggle in the latter half of the 19th century, the New IRA’s justification for armed resistance for the sake of armed resistance in the first half of the 21st century with no overall political and military objectives beyond symbolic defiance is a pretty poor rationale for war even within the peculiar conditions of the British Occupied north of Ireland.
This new band of militant republicans sounds different from the many paramilitary factions and splinter groups I have interviewed before. There was little of the characteristic bravado threatening terror campaigns in England or vain declarations of inevitable victory.
Instead, they were composed and spoke with surprising clarity about their prospects. The army council of the New IRA has no doubt about the public odium that their campaign of violence engenders.
“We fully accept we cannot defeat the British militarily, or even drive them from Ireland, but we will continue to fight for as long as they remain here. The attacks are symbolic. They are propaganda. As long as you have the British in Ireland and the country remains partitioned, there will be an IRA. It doesn’t matter if the two governments imprison the current leadership. Others will still come forward and fight. Being a member of the IRA was never popular.”
The use of violence was justified, they argued…
“Who wouldn’t vote and want peace? But it’s like Brexit. People didn’t know what they were voting for during the peace process. You ask why we organise armed actions. They are symbolic. Our actions serve one purpose.They let the world know there is an ongoing conflict in Ireland. It’s naive to say there’s no war in Ireland. There is. There’s an intelligence war, there’s helicopters in the air, military drones flying around housing estates in Derry, spy planes and undercover units everywhere,” said one of the dissidents.
“We are not interested in being popular. Republicanism has always been a small core of people. It was never populist. To support armed struggle was never popular. In 1916, 1,200 people took part in the Easter Rising. The remnants of those who survived were spat at as they were led away,” he added.
There is a frightening lack of strategic thought here. And a misunderstanding of Irish history. The Easter Rising of 1916 and the establishment of a Provisional Government of an Irish Republic was not a symbolic act. The insurrection was planned and organised by its leaders with the intention of deploying 10,000 armed men and women at key locations across Ireland, exploiting the weaknesses of the British authorities. Though the months of careful preparation failed, over 2,500 people still participated in days of armed rebellion against the United Kingdom, overcoming decades and even centuries of induced deference and fear. And while some of the defeated “rebels” were undoubtedly vilified by onlookers, in other parts of the capital and country significant crowds gathered to cheer the survivors as they were being led away. Reminding us once again that the myth of 1916 and the history of 1916 is not always the same thing. And though one can point to the small groups of Fenian “skirmishers” and “dynamiters” in the late 19th century as an exemplar of Irish revolutionary republicanism, these were the exceptions not the rule.
Armed defiance with no other purpose or achievable aim beyond defiance itself is politically, militarily and morally indefensible. It is a rejection of revolutionary thought, something recognised as long ago as the late 1800s when the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood ruled it out as a strategy. Unarmed resistance, through political, social and cultural action, coupled with communal reconciliation and accommodation is the only viable way forward for revolutionary republicanism if it wishes to achieve a free and reunited Ireland.